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  graphic image of peter singer Peter Singer at NH Disability Forum:
'A kick in the face,' says Not Dead Yet

by Mary Johnson

Mary Johnson is editor of Ragged Edge magazine.

Oct 1, 2001 -- On Oct. 5, bioethicist Peter Singer, who wrote in his book Practical Ethics that "Killing a disabled infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Very often it is not wrong at all," will appear at the fall conference of the New Hampshire Governor's Commission on Disability, facing such well-known disability rights figures as Wellesley bioethicist Adrienne Asch, U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commissioner Paul Steven Miller and Halftheplanet.com's John Kemp, former head of VSA (and before that with the National Easter Seal Society).

Read Not Dead Yet's letters to NH Disability Commission Director Michael Jenkins, and his response

About Peter Singer's philosophy

The fact that Singer is appearing at all -- the fact that he was invited -- has cause a rift within the disability rights movement, with those like Governor's Commission director Michael Jenkins insisting that it is time for the disability community to take Singer on; versus those like Not Dead Yet members who insist that inviting Singer to what is a disability forum is no different than "the NAACP inviting a prominent representative of the Ku Klux Klan to debate at a civil rights conference."

"Such an action accomplishes little more than giving Singer the opportunity to say that "reasonable" people in the disability community feel that his policy recommendations are taken as a legitimate matter of debate within our community," says NDY Research Director Stephen Drake. "When we inside the disability community view an exchange between Singer and someone like Adrienne Asch, we see how weak his arguments are. I doubt the nondisabled public comes away with the same impression."

Efforts by Not Dead Yet to get the Commission to "dis-invite" Singer were unsuccessful. And the effort has left sore feelings and a sense of "betrayal" on the part of at least some Not Dead Yet members that "maybe none of the parties involved give a shit about what a kick in the face this is to people with cognitive disabilities."

Not Dead Yet president Diane Coleman laid out the group's objections to the Singer invitation in an Aug. 6 letter to Jenkins, saying that "It is one thing for disability advocates to debate Singer in a general public forum. It is quite another to invite him into our community." She called it a "direct insult" to disabled people nationwide.

Singer is more than "controversial," Coleman says. "He advocates changes in public policy that would deprive millions of people with cognitive disabilities equal protection of the law and allow those who do not meet his fuzzy criteria for 'personhood' to be killed by medical professionals with the 'consent' of their families."

"We invited Peter Singer to speak at our conference," Jenkins responded , "because he represents, in the most dramatic way, a philosophy which shows that we, as a society, may well be on our way to an ethical and moral abyss as we ascribe less and less value to those who are 'less than perfect.'

"Now is not the time, in our view, for the disability community to avoid or run from the views of folks like Peter Singer," says Jenkins. "Nor is it the time to take shots at him from afar. It is time to bring to an open forum the philosophy he is promoting at Princeton, Harvard Medical School, and countless other venues through his many books and papers."

"If the New Hampshire invitation is not rescinded," said Coleman, "the U.S. disability community will have provided Singer a form of legitimacy he can use.

"Singer is a shrewd street fighter," says Coleman, who adds that he "can be counted on to use the invitation to the Governor's Council to claim that his views are a legitimate topic for debate within the disability community itself."

Last year, the Society for Disability Studies rejected a proposal for a debate between Singer and Adrienne Asch at the annual SDS conference, said Coleman, because the group believed that "such a debate within the disability community would do far more harm than good. It would suggest that Singer's views on personhood are a legitimate topic for debate, not just in the general public where we debate him vigorously, but among ourselves as well.

"We cannot imagine any other minority group, or women's group, that would extend any form of speaking invitation to someone who denies their personhood."

In mid-September, the New Hampshire Executive Council voted to allow the Commission to have Singer at its Oct. 5 forum but blocked state funds from paying his $2,000 fee. At this, Singer reportedly said he would waive his fee.

Singer asks "provocative and challenging questions, many of which are not being dealt with by the disability community," Jenkins told the Sept. 23 Concord (NH) Monitor . People need to "take a good hard look" at his statements.

"I happen to think that you can't get anywhere by telling people not to talk," Adrienne Asch told the Monitor.

Read Not Dead Yet's letters to NH Disability Commission Director Michael Jenkins, and his response

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